A 12.30pm kick-off after an international break will concern Jürgen Klopp more than any back-slapping to celebrate his 250th league game in charge of Liverpool on Saturday.
Even a manager as despairing of the schedule as Klopp, however, may privately concede that Watford’s early arrival offers an ideal opportunity in his quest to unnerve and ultimately unseat Manchester City.
Liverpool would go top with a 10th successive Premier League win and 10th consecutive home league win when Roy Hodgson’s relegation-threatened side visit. They would be on the summit for only a few hours should City respond in kind at Burnley but the sense of Liverpool closing in would have been reinforced before Pep Guardiola and his players emerge at Turf Moor. It feels inexorable on current form.
City have been top since beating Watford on December 4th and held an 11-point advantage over their only genuine title rivals at the start of January, having played a game more. Their lead was nine points at the start of February, six when March opened and has been whittled down to one before the business end commences in April.
Liverpool, who have equalled their points tally for last season, have reasserted their claims to be far more than a “pain in the ass” to Guardiola. They are his greatest obstacle in the Premier League, FA Cup and Champions League too, and the strongest squad of Klopp’s near seven-year Liverpool reign appears well-equipped to handle the physical load. There is no questioning their ability to handle the demands mentally.
“We are not close to thinking about any crazy stuff like that,” the Liverpool manager said when, with the Carabao Cup in the bank, the subject of winning the quadruple cropped up with a quarter more substance. He will continue to straight-bat the possibility, certain in the knowledge that one tired performance, bad decision or injury crisis could shatter the historic quest and one draw can have profound repercussions in a Premier League race with a City team capable of producing another flawless run of their own.
But there is justification for others to contemplate crazy stuff, and for Liverpool supporters to dream about it before the showdown at the Etihad Stadium on Sunday week.
From the rare luxury of a month-long pre-season training camp in Austria and France last summer until the 47th game of their season before the international break, Liverpool’s objective, as Klopp has stated, was to build a foundation to deliver in April and May. In that respect his team have timed their run to perfection.
Liverpool have dropped two Premier League points since the turn of the year; City seven points in their past seven league games. There have been 16 wins in 19 matches in all competitions in 2022, including the remarkable penalty shootout success against Chelsea in the Carabao Cup final, and their only defeat, against Internazionale in the Champions League, could not derail progress to the quarter-finals on aggregate.
Benfica await next week. The Portuguese club are third in Primeira Liga. Liverpool defeated the leaders, Porto, 5-1 and 2-0 in this season’s group stage.
No team in England's top four divisions have conceded fewer league goals at home than Liverpool (seven), and the improvement in squad depth was evident throughout the Carabao Cup campaign and when Mohamed Salah and Sadio Mané departed for the Africa Cup of Nations after scoring in the 2-2 draw at Chelsea in January.
That month’s signing of Luis Díaz, who has assimilated seamlessly since his arrival from Porto, has embellished an already formidable forward line.
Klopp’s aversion to talk of a quadruple is understandable, however. Liverpool produced several laboured performances before the international break but, as in the slender victory over West Ham or defeat by Inter at Anfield, managed to find a way through.
The loss of Trent Alexander-Arnold to a hamstring injury is significant, with the team’s most creative force responsible for 11 Premier League assists this season and 17 in all competitions.
The right-back spent time rehabilitating in Dubai during the international break and, while not expected to feature against Watford or Benfica on Tuesday, remains on course to return for the crucial trip to the Etihad. Andy Robertson should be available on Saturday despite having to self-isolate with Covid on Scotland duty.
Salah returned to Liverpool by private jet on Wednesday after Egypt’s latest penalty heartbreak at the hands of Senegal and Mané the night before. The Egypt international has been castigated in some quarters back home for his country’s failure to reach the World Cup, with Salah sending his penalty over in the shootout, and Klopp will be wary of any emotional toll on his leading goalscorer.
The pain could work in Liverpool’s favour as Salah channels his frustrations into their three remaining targets for the season, or decides the sanctuary of Anfield is worth a contract extension. A home date with Watford looks an inviting way to start for a striker with nine goals in seven outings against them.
Klopp's personal milestone is even more impressive. No Liverpool manager has overseen as many league wins in their first 250 matches as the 54-year-old, who has 159 victories in 249 games. Kenny Dalglish was the previous highest with 150 from his first 250. The potential exists for 16 more this season, along with unprecedented achievement. - Guardian